Ed Gfeller is a retired psychiatrist. So when you ask if “compulsive” is an accurate way to describe his determination to tell the story of the unjustly obscure Edwin Osgood Grover, you’re really asking a medical question.
“My wife would probably agree with that,” Gfeller admits.
Grover was the whimsically titled “professor of books” at Rollins College from 1926 until his retirement in 1947. Although few Winter Parkers have heard of him, his impact on the campus and the community continues to reverberate decades after his death in 1965.
Gfeller has just released a self-published book, Edwin Osgood Grover: The Business of Making Good. He has also produced a DVD about Grover, Grover: America’s First Professor of Books, and maintains a website dedicated to Grover’s life and career.
Compulsive? Perhaps, although “meticulous” is an equally apt — and less fraught — descriptor. Whatever term you select, it’s a fact that Gfeller and Winter Park Magazine have worked along parallel paths to remedy Grover’s anonymity.
In 2015, the magazine inducted Grover into its inaugural Winter Park Hall of Fame class, calling him out for special recognition as the city’s “Unsung Hero.” Concurrently, Gfeller was producing his DVD and preparing a manuscript for publication.
“Investigating history is similar to understanding a patient in psychotherapy,” Gfeller says. “It is necessary to get a picture of the family, the life circumstances, the struggles — all of which was difficult with Grover because so little of his correspondence survives.”
Gfeller’s Grover projects come on the heels of a DVD that he produced about Winter Park’s Langford Resort Hotel, an iconic but kitschy getaway that was torn down in 2003. The DVD was titled The Langford Resort Hotel: 1956-2001.
Gfeller completed the documentary — which is packed with archival film clips and new interviews with Langford family members — in 2014. Rollins College president emeritus Thaddeus Seymour encouraged Gfeller to make a DVD on the hotel’s colorful history.
When that project wrapped, Seymour suggested a documentary on Grover.
“Ed Gfeller is on his way to being one of our town’s characters,” says Seymour. “His friendship has been a special joy for me personally, and I’ve been honored to collaborate with him. I can hardly wait to see what he’ll undertake next.”
Why should Gfeller care about a long-forgotten professor? More to the point, why should the rest of us?
In fact, anyone who researches Winter Park’s history will quickly discover — as Seymour already knew, and Gfeller came to realize — that Grover was a towering figure whose many skills did not include self-promotion.
The New England-bred professor’s achievements include launching the Rollins Animated Magazine with Hamilton Holt, the college’s legendary eighth president, and founding the Hannibal Square Library, which served west side residents during an era of segregation.
Most notably, Grover and a Rollins student, John “Jack” Connery,” spearheaded the effort to turn a primal tract of undeveloped property into Mead Botanical Garden, which remains one of the city’s most important assets. (For more about the garden, see page 48.)
“I had never heard of Grover,” recalls Gfeller. “When Thaddeus said I should make a movie about him, I replied, ‘Who?’ Then I started my research and realized that he deserved a place in Winter Park history. And I knew that when the DVD was finished, I’d have to do a book to tell the full story.”
Gfeller, 80, is an interesting fellow in his own right. Born in Aarburg, Switzerland, he attended the University of Bern, where he researched brain structures in primates and earned a medical degree in 1963.
In the U.S., Gfeller joined the faculty as a psychiatry professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He then started a psychiatry residency at Sheppard Pratt Hospital in Towson, Maryland, a suburb of Baltimore.
He later became a psychiatry professor at the University of Alabama-Birmingham and chief of psychiatry at the Birmingham Veterans Administration Hospital. At the University of Florida, he became a psychiatry professor and chief of psychiatry at the Malcom Randall Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
In 1987, Gfeller and his wife, Joan Marie, moved to Winter Park, where he established a private psychiatric practice and was chief of psychiatry at Winter Park Memorial Hospital. He was later named medical director for behavioral health for Orlando Regional Healthcare, now Orlando Health, and chief of psychiatry at the Orlando VA Medical Center.
In 2006, Gfeller suffered a heart attack just as he was set to retire. Once he recovered, however, he joined a Maitland-based company that conducted clinical trials on psychiatric medications.
He retired again — this time for good — in 2013. With time to pursue more eclectic interests, he decided to revisit a childhood passion and reinvent himself as a documentarian.
“Even as a kid, I took pictures,” Gfeller says. “There’s a picture of me at the Basel Zoo with my 1937 Kodak 6-20 Popular Brownie, probably about 1943. Everyone in my family was a Leica enthusiast. I got a Leica as a confirmation present in 1953.”
As digital technology made filmmaking less expensive, Gfeller began taking courses at GeniusDV in South Orlando. He honed his skills by recording local functions, including the Langford’s nostalgic farewell soiree.
That event was emceed by the omnipresent Seymour, who encouraged Gfeller to make his first full-fledged documentary.
“Ed is relentless in his research,” notes Seymour. “He has a keen eye for details, particularly details that reveal character. He spent his career helping patients search for and discover significant details in their lives. That’s just what he’s been doing in his films, and in his book.”
Grover, who appears stern in photographs, makes a somewhat enigmatic subject. Those who knew him described him as formal and reserved.
Yet, professorial as he may have seemed, he was an entrepreneur prior to becoming an academic. He understood — to use a now-tarnished phrase — the art of the deal.
“Grover was an introvert and Holt was an extravert,” Gfeller says. “They worked well together. Grover spoke quietly. He was quite tall, and tilted to one side in a way that made him seem to be floating as he walked.”
Born in Mantorville, Minnesota, in 1870, Grover was raised in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, where he wandered in the woods and developed a love for nature. While attending Dartmouth College, he worked as a reporter for the Boston Globe and edited the Dartmouth Literary Monthly.
After graduating in 1894 with a degree in literature, he enrolled in graduate school at Harvard. However, instead of earning an advanced degree, he chose to visit Europe and the Middle East — an adventure he managed despite having only $300 to his name.
Upon his return to the U.S. in 1900, Grover worked as a textbook salesman in the Midwest, and shortly thereafter became chief editor of Rand McNally in Chicago.
He formed his own publishing company in 1906, but sold his interest six years later and became president and majority owner of the Prang Company, a manufacturer of crayons, watercolors and school supplies. After relocating the company from Manhattan to Chicago, he and his family settled in Highland Park.
Grover retired in 1925, at age 55. But his retirement would be short lived.
In the late 1890s, Grover had written a poem, “Because of Thee,” which he had submitted to The Independent, a New York-based magazine aligned with the progressive movement. The editor, Hamilton Holt, promised to publish the work, but never did. Grover later followed up, meeting Holt for lunch at Coney Island and establishing a bond of friendship.
After Holt was appointed to the Rollins presidency, Grover visited him in Winter Park. One topic of conversation was an observation by Ralph Waldo Emerson: Colleges did a good job of building libraries, but inexplicably supplied no professors of books.
A week later, the often-impulsive Holt, a collector of “golden personalities” on his faculty, offered Grover such a post at Rollins. Holt claimed that Grover would be the first and only professor of books in the U.S.
That contention would later be disputed. But, according to Gfeller, Grover’s “experience, his background, and his knowledge of printing and publishing books made him uniquely suited to fill that position.”
In 1926, Grover moved his family to Winter Park, which Gfeller describes as “hot, mosquito-infested and Jim Crow country.” Regardless, Grover was charmed by the city’s ambiance — and heartened by the fact that many of its founders and most prominent citizens were New Englanders.
In his acceptance letter to Holt, Grover wrote that he hoped “to be able to interest a group of selected students in a wider and keener appreciation of books, and even in the making of beautiful books, until they agree with me that the companionship of a good book is better than the company of a thousand men.”
At the time of his move south, Grover’s busy household included his wife, Mertie, and sister, Eulalie, the author of several series of bestselling children’s books, including The Sunbonnet Babies and The Overall Boys.
Other residents at the Osceola Avenue home, located within easy walking distance of Rollins, included Grover’s sickly youngest sister, Nan, and his mother, Fanny. Daughters Frances and Hester were away at school, while his ill-fated son, Graham, lived in the attic.
Once the Grovers arrived, the ambitious little college — and the relatively refined community in which it was nestled — would never be the same.
Shortly after settling in, Mertie Grover and Lucy Vincent, wife of Clarence Vincent, minister of First Congregational Church of Winter Park, founded the Welbourne Avenue Nursery for children of African-American working mothers. The facility remains in operation today.
Grover embarked on a whirlwind of activities in addition to teaching. He funded the startup of Winter Park’s first bookstore, The Bookery, and launched a campus literary magazine, The Flamingo. His small press, Angel Alley, published faculty works and a student songbook.
He was soon appointed by Holt as vice president of the college and director of what was then called the Carnegie Library. He added 14,000 volumes — some from his personal collection — over a three-year period.
Grover mentored Zora Neal Hurston, helping her to find a publisher for her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, and introducing her to Robert Wunsch, the college’s theater director, who staged her play, From Sun to Sun, on the Rollins campus.
Hurston was a frequent guest in the Grover home, “a practice that did not sit well with many in Winter Park’s white community,” writes Gfeller.
Most notably, Grover and Holt concocted The Animated Magazine, a program that would bring famous people from all walks of life to Rollins and invite the community to come and hear them speak. Grover would be “publisher” and Holt would be “editor.”
Gfeller devotes an entire chapter to The Animated Magazine, noting that while many of the speakers aren’t well known today, they were celebrities at the time, and drew thousands of spectators.
During presentations, Holt, ever the showman, sat onstage wielding an oversized blue pencil — which he genially threatened to use if a speaker exceeded his or her allotted 15 minutes.
Among the headliners whose fame has endured were Henry Luce (1938), Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1939), Carl Sandburg (1940), Greer Garson (1946), Omar Bradley (1948) and Edward R. Murrow (1949).
Holt retired in 1949 and died shortly thereafter. The Animated Magazine carried on, to diminished interest, until it was discontinued in 1970. Today, its spirit lives on in the Winter Park Institute at Rollins College Speaker Series, which brings luminaries to campus for presentations.
Gfeller’s book also discusses two tragedies in Grover’s life.
In 1936, Mertie — who had been the principal of the Beach Institute, an African-American school in Savannah — was run over and killed while crossing on Osceola Avenue.
Her grieving husband asked that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made in her memory to found the Hannibal Square Library, which served black children on the city’s west side. He called it “the library that flowers built.”
The following year, Grover helped to form Hannibal Square Associates and was the civic-improvement organization’s president for 10 years. He raised funds for the West Side Community Center and the Mary DePugh Nursing Home.
In 1940, Graham was struck and killed by an oncoming train at what is now the railroad crossing at South Denning Drive. The youth, who was then attending Rollins, had suffered from mental illness — Gfeller speculates schizophrenia — and apparently committed suicide.
“We have no record of Grover giving voice to his feelings about Mertie’s death or Graham’s,” writes Gfeller. “He was a very private man.”
However, Gfeller believes the twin losses may be one reason why Grover sold his Osceola Avenue home and moved to Camilla Avenue, just steps away from his beloved Mead Botanical Garden.
The founding of the garden, of course, also rates its own chapter in Gfeller’s book.
One of Grover’s students, John “Jack” Connery, had been a Boy Scout in a troop led by Theodore Luqueer Mead, the famous horticulturist who hybridized orchids and grew citrus at his Oviedo compound, colorfully dubbed “Wait-a-Bit.”
While attending college, Connery had continued to assist Mead. Then, upon Mead’s death in 1936, Connery had inherited his grateful mentor’s collection of amaryllis, hemerocallis, fancy-leaf caladiums and more than 1,000 orchids.
Connery and Grover decided to establish a grand memorial garden that would pay homage to Mead. Although the effort seems far afield for a professor of books, Grover was an amateur horticulturist whose brother, Frederick, was a professor of botany at Oberlin College and an admirer of Mead’s work.
The pair located an overgrown 48-acre tract teeming with native flora and fauna and populated by birds and alligators. Grover managed to get various owners to donate land, and secured a grant from the Works Progress Administration for drainage, the clearing of brush and the building of trails.
Mead Botanical Garden, which opened in 1940, is tucked away at the end of South Denning Drive, across the railroad tracks, bounded by Pennsylvania Avenue and Howell Creek. It has enchanted casual visitors and serious naturalists for decades.
The garden would be Grover’s most high-profile achievement. He retired from Rollins in 1951, at age 81. Six years later, he was asked by the college to justify why he should continue receiving a $400 per year pension.
Grover’s effort to demonstrate his worth — humiliating as it must have been — proved a boon to his biographer. In the college archives, Gfeller discovered a lengthy report that the 88-year-old professor of books had prepared for Alfred J. Hannah, the vice president who had requested it.
In a cover letter, Grover pays tribute to Holt for giving him the opportunity to teach, adding that “all I have tried to do is to render service, as it appeared from day to day, on the campus and in the community.”
Accompanying the letter is a book-length document in which Grover outlines his contributions — financial and otherwise — over a 30-year period. Perhaps the sheer heft of it surprised even its author.
In addition to founding Mead Botanical Garden and working tirelessly for the benefit of west side residents, he had barnstormed the country, giving speeches, flattering donors and raising money — sometimes securing bequests and endowments.
He had recruited promising students, sometimes arranging personally for scholarships; he had secured rare books for the library, donating 3,000 volumes from his own collection; and, not insignificantly, he had persuaded the Congregational Board of Home Missions to forgive a $31,000 mortgage it had placed on the campus.
There was much, much more, demonstrating that, despite the national publicity Holt received, the far less flashy Grover had truly been the college’s indispensable man.
The modest stipend continued until Grover’s death in 1965, at age 90. He was survived only by daughters Hester, who died in 1981, and Frances, who died in 1989. Nan had died in 1961.
“The Grover story seems to support the notion that people who do their job well, even exceptionally well, but do not advertise their accomplishments become unsung heroes of their communities,” writes Gfeller.
Edwin Osgood Grover: The Business of Making Good is a relatively fast read, in part because there is little personal source material to be mined, and in part because many of those who knew Grover personally have died.
Gfeller, however, was undaunted. The book contains fascinating interviews with Barbara Buchanan Parsons, a one-time neighbor; Dave Berto, a student whom Grover mentored; and Dr. James Talbert, whose father worked for Grover at Mead Botanical Garden.
Gfeller’s writing style is conversational and entertaining, highlighted by wry asides and intriguing speculation. Clearly, he has affinity for his subject, and an appreciation for Rollins and its eternal quirkiness.
The college held a remembrance for Grover in Knowles Memorial Chapel. The elegy was written by daughter Frances, but read by Dr. Arthur L. Teikmanis, senior minister of First Congregational Church of Winter Park, where Grover attended.
It concluded with an excerpt from one of Grover’s poems, titled “Homeward Bound”:
Shall I tell you the secret of all I’ve learned,
In life’s doing and daring,
Happiness comes and happiness stays,
In sharing, and sharing, and sharing.
READ MORE ABOUT IT
Edwin Osgood Grover: The Business of Making Good is available at the Rollins College Bookstore, 200 West Fairbanks Avenue, or the Winter Park History Museum, 200 West New England Avenue. The DVD, Grover: America’s First Professor of Books, is also available at both locations. Visit groverprofessorofbooks.com for everything Grover-related.